Madrid’s underground station of Embajadores is a crowded junction with a fountain gushing from its roundabout, an arts centre, cafeterias and public showers - Casa de baños - where anyone can wash for 50 Eurocents, if they bring their own soap and towel. A multicultural mix of upward mobility and local artisans rendezvous here in family-run bars for a café con leche and a toasted sandwich of jamón ibérico.
But moving through the crowds of commuters and traders are a different kind of people - mostly over 40, with battered baseball caps and grey, dusty jackets, their shoes are beaten-up and their gait slouching.
They band together on a bench outside the Metro station and opposite the El Portillo bar, where they shout at each other. One from their group stands up and walks along the kerb of the ring-road, checking his phone, and glancing between the heads of people and the sides of vehicles. He is searching for a driver.
These are drug addicts who collect here every day, waiting for a car - called a cunda - to take them from the centre of Madrid to the outskirts, where there is a 16 km stretch of road called Cañada Real, a former trail for cow-herders. In the last two decades, this thoroughfare has seen a boom in shanty-huts and squatters. Every day, users travel by taxi from Madrid to the zone to inject or smoke heroin, before returning to the capital. The cundero - the driver - wants to fill up his cab with as many junkies as he can, so will not move until his car is full.
We approach the users on the bench, and mention we are from the press. They scream out, stand up and, as a group, race to our side. As we turn to them, they back off, as though we have the power to hurt them with our gaze.
Another man in his 50s, in tattered denim, round glasses and a knotted green necktie ambles up to us. His name is Luis.
“They are scared you have hidden cameras,” he says. “This whole place…” he gestures around the shops, along the glass entrance to the Metro, and to our jackets and shirts, “... was fitted with hidden cameras.”
Luis explains that he was also a former journalist, but no longer. Now he smokes heroin.
We ask how much the cunda costs.
“It’s five Euro,” he says. “You can find out about it on the Internet.”
What about Romanians? Are they coming here now?
“There are lots of Romanians coming to Embajadores,” he says. “As well as Ukrainians and Bulgarians. They started coming three or four years ago. They steal during the day and come here in the afternoon to get a taxi to Cañada Real. Compared to the other users, when they take drugs, they are more vicious.”
We go off in search of the Romanians. We must access Cañada Real. But it’s one of the most dangerous places in Europe. So we need the help of a priest.
“Do you have faith?”
Next to a white van near an industrial warehouse, Iñaki Palacio Muñiz is loading up the back of his van with food.
In a short white beard, sunglasses and an open shirt, the 53 year-old is a reformed addict and evangelical priest who takes food to drug users and the homeless. He has promised he will accompany us to Valdemingómez, the crime heart of Cañada Real.
We tell him we are looking for Romanians, so we can report on this new trend in east European addicts in Madrid.
- Are you the press?
- I hope we will meet some Romanians today.
- So do we.
- Do you have faith?
- Then maybe we will ask God.
He pauses and looks down.
- Hopefully, God will bring us Romanians.
We follow Iñaki’s van in a rented car to a motorway, and then to an interchange, where we pass by a furniture warehouse, before moving onto a bumpy dirt track. Chickens are snacking on scraps in the dust. A rat is scuttling alongside a wall. The buildings facing the road are formed of breeze blocks covered in white plaster.
Every ten metres the word ‘Kiosco’ is painted in naive letters next to a small gap in the block, covered in a grill. Below the hatches are written: ‘Refresco, Bocadillo, Patatas’ with an arrow aimed at the hole.
On a white wall opposite a car park in giant handwritten letters, pointing to a parking space is the word ‘Estaca’ - which means ‘stake’.
Children walk around in barefeet, playing on smartphones. Facing the road, on red plastic chairs branded with Estrella - the beer of Barcelona - are the men of the Spanish Roma, in tight-fitting t-shirts, with rounded bellies and thick moustaches curled at the end.
Heavy-set women in headscarves, loose-fitting tops, flowery dresses, and with large golden ear-rings step out from the pavement and come up to the car. On the passenger side, one knocks on the window with a strong bang.
“I want to talk to you!” she shouts. “Don’t be afraid!”
We drive on, and more women come out to the road, dressed in the cliched costume of the gypsy.
We are from Romania, and we think they are Romanian. We make that assumption. But they are not. They are Spanish.
“I want to talk to you!”
“Don’t be afraid!”
We turn onto a car park of cement and pebbles. Cars rattle across the stones - the cundas - packed with junkies paying five Euro a piece.
On a hill at the top of the car park is a white-plastered Catholic Church, with a thin and tall wooden cross. Rubbish is piled up on an escarpment to the side. On the ground are flattened miniature cans of Mahou - the beer of Madrid - and a pink toy of the muppet Elmo, covered in white dust.
Iñaki’s colleague, Carlos, is unloading the vans. Inside are bags of doughnuts, yoghurt, and bottles of lemonade and water.
Users begin to emerge from the street and tents. Some in their 40s or 50s, their bodies wrought tight from decades of injections. They shuffle up, and crowd around the back of the van.
A man in long black curly hair walks near to us, with sunken cheeks, bulbous muscles in his arms, carrying a cane, and resembling a disabled 70s roadie. He drops a doughnut on the floor, reaches down, picks it up and throws it behind the van. A thin greyhound appears and smells the snack, but leaves it alone.
A barefoot kid of no more than seven comes up to the van calling out ‘Buenas Tardes’ in a warm and friendly voice to everyone. He is with his grandfather and a tatty stroller for toddlers. The kid piles the vehicle up with food.
Circling the van is a black woman that everyone calls ‘Mummy’. She is in dreadlocks, bent over, her eyes pressed out from her skull. She carries all the food from the van in a Carrefour bag. She could be anywhere between 40 and 80 years old. This happens to people who take heroin and the poison dealers cut it with. No one is sure of her nationality. Someone says a former British colony. So we ask in English.
“Where are you from?”
And she replies with an accent - clear, perfect English with a hint of Creole.
“I am from England, Britain, Inglaterra.”
“Where are you from in Britain?”
“I am from London.”
“Where in London?”
“You are not from London!”
“But where - which borough?”
She shouts even louder:
“You are not from London!”
Then she shuffles away.
"If someone tells them they can inject this, they inject it"
Carlos is an ex-user. With decades of experience. “Heroin, amphetamine, everything, I was a politoxicómano,” he says, “I tried doctors, I went to the mountains to quit drugs, I tried committing suicide. Iñaki helped me a lot.”
Known as the ‘biggest drugs supermarket in Europe’, Cañada Real is a place where the Madrid police contain the wholesale, retail and consumption of heavy drugs in one place. The police do not arrest people for using, and if they catch people selling, this is a crime. But here, everyone is in business. Wholesalers sell to smaller dealers, who then go to the city to hawk the merchandise. And it is not abandoned by the city. The police pass by in patrol cars every 30 minutes.
“Here in Cañada Real - there is hash, heroin, cocaine,” Carlos says. “Whatever users can get, they get here. Even rat poison. If someone tells them they can inject this, they inject it. These people are not selective.”
Gheorghe is in his late 20s, bearded, and in a black jacket and slacks. He is chirpy, talkative, but cannot stop for long. He’s from Rahova in south Bucharest. Why is he here?
“I came two and half years ago,” he says. “The drugs are better here.”
Six Romanians are part of this camp in Valdemingómez, while further down the street, away from the drugs zone, is another Romanian village - El Gallinero - whose inhabitants are mainly rubbish pickers and pickpockets.
In Valdemingomez, Romanians work as ‘employees’ of the drug dealers. They guard the gate and watch if the police are getting intrusive, shouting back to the dealers if the cops are closing in. It’s a frontline job, which means sometimes they get arrested - and go to prison.
Standing in a bandana and sandals, with his feet wrapped in bandages is Ioan, also from Bucharest. Because of an infection, he needs to change the bandages every two days.
“I want some trainers,” he tells Iñaki.
But the priest dismisses the demand. He will not give him any new shoes. Ioan is annoyed. He shouts at himself, like a spurned child.
We ask if he would like to speak to us.
He refuses, saying that the press only “tell lies”.
Walking around the car park, Ioan looks back at us, disappears, then re-emerges at a distance, still observing us, as we observe him.
Iñaki tells us that if Ioan receives new trainers, he will only sell them for drugs.
Eventually he walks back over to us - and says he will talk. We sit behind the van and crouch down. He lives by himself in a tent behind the Catholic church. He spends around 30 to 40 Euro per day on heroin.
“I get money for drugs mostly from selling the new syringes from an organization, in return for the old ones, which I collect from the ground,” he says.
He tried to quit at some point, and went to a rehab centre, but when he failed to stay clean, they kicked him out.
He has contracted Hepatitis C. It flared up at some point.
“But now I’m healed,” he believes.
Ioan arrived in Spain in 2001, with his sister and sister-in-law.
“I wasn't using back then, I was playing sports,” he says. “First we lived in Barcelona and started with cocaine and heroin. But soon we didn't have any money for rent, so I started stealing.”
The police arrested him for thieving in Barcelona, where he was tried and convicted. The Spanish authorities sent him back to Romania. In 2008, he was caught again for pickpocketing. He spent three years in jail in Romania.
“As soon as I got out of prison, I came back to Spain. I don’t have many relatives in Bucharest: two of my brothers died - one because of drugs. I have one sister in Germany, and another in England. But I found a place here, in Valdemingómez.”
A patrol car moves into the park. It passes by a cunda moving in the opposite direction. Two young cops are seated up front. The car stops, and the policeman get out and start talking to some men standing up against a wall.
“The Spanish police are fine,” says Ioan. "If you respect them, they will respect you."
“If you had an overdose, the people would rob you”
Fewer users are coming to the van for the food. The doughnuts and the lemonade have gone. Only some water and yoghurt is left.
There is time to ask Iñaki about how he switched from shooting up heroin to providing snacks to a united nations of addicts in the suburbs of Madrid.
Iñaki started using because he “liked it”. Mostly heroin and cocaine. His first marriage failed because of drugs, and soon he ended up living under a bridge with a new wife in Torregrosa, a Madrid hub in the 80s and 90s for dealing.
“It was worse than this place,” he says. “Every day, three or four people would die. There - if you had an overdose, instead of helping you, the people would rob you.”
Inaki would steal handbags, break into pharmacies and traffic in drugs. He was a chorizo. In Caló, the Roma dialect in the Iberian peninsular, the cured pork and paprika sausage is slang for burglar.
Iñaki would beg in the rich Salamanca neighbourhood of Madrid, where he could earn up to 120 Euro per day.
Back then people would re-use needles up to 30 times and HIV ripped through Torregrossa, killing hundreds.
“A whole generation was lost,” he says.
Iñaki himself does not have HIV, but does have Hepatitis C, the signature virus of almost every problem drug user.
He has been convicted to prison four times, the last time for eight years - but he did not serve the full sentence.
One day begging in Salamanca, a man approached him. Iñaki doesn’t give details about how the man looked, or how he spoke, but he does remember the words distinctly. This is what he said:
“Do you love your wife? Do you know the difference between desire and love? God is love and God loves you. If you love your wife, you want to be happy with her, and if you love your wife, you want her to be happy with you.”
One year later he was still living under the bridge with his wife, on a mattress infected with lice.
“At that moment, I felt I had wasted my whole life and that I would not change because I was a drug addict.”
Then the words of the man he met on the street came back to him. At the same time he recalled a verse from The Bible, Matthew 7:7. "Ask and it will be given to you: seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you."
That night he and his wife lit candles either side of their mattress. Then they binged on drugs. They were convinced it would be the last night of their lives. Iñaki screamed and asked God for help.
“I felt my heart suddenly fill with the love of God. Sweet, pure and sublime tenderness. My life flashed before my eyes. I did not feel condemned, but loved by God. I spent two hours lying there. It was a new kind of high.”
That morning he and his wife checked into separate rehab clinics. They kept in touch once a month via the telephone.
“People ask me: ‘You were on drugs, you do not think that this was a hallucination?’ I said: ‘My life changed, I do not take drugs. I do not go into this place...” he gestures to the tents and favelas of Valdemingómez... “as a buyer, but I go to help. I do not meet these people as a user, but to give food.”
For three decades, the organisation he works for - Remar - has been coming here to donate food. This period included Spain’s financial collapse of 2008, and the subsequent spike in youth unemployment. But this did not affect Cañada Real, says Iñaki.
“Here people do crime for a living,” he says. “There is no crisis here.”
Now he sees different generations of drug addicts - the older Spanish and Latin American users, some from other ex-colonies, and the younger ones, including those from Romania, Ukraine and Bulgaria, as well as Moroccans and Algerians, many of whom start using when they come to Spain.
“It is worse for those who have been doing this for 30 or 40 years, many don’t have inner strength like me.”
Dusk. The air is dusty. Night comes fast in September. The sound of a muezzin calls from over the escarpment. I ask if there is a mosque nearby. Iñaki says there is. I look over the edge of ridge. A group of tents. The melody is louder. The call to prayer is from a radio.
Some men in their 30s are standing up against a plaster wall in the car park. One of them picks up a door from a rubbish tip. He moves over to the remains of a charred bonfire at the edge of the car park. He throws the door down. Then he walks back over to the rubbish tip and picks up another door. He places this on its side, and leans the first door against it. He takes a flask and pours on some gasoline, clicks open a lighter, and watches the flames flare up.
Ten metres away another bonfire explodes into the air.
Further away in the distance the sparks of another fire can be seen.
This is the signal that they are selling.
Part of The Black Sea Eurocrimes project financed by Journalism Fund
Illustrations by Sorina Vazelina